Digest

A selection from the December issue.

Life is different for people who think 
in metaphors
In Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

Some people are literal minded – they think in black and white whereas others colour their worlds with metaphor. A new paper published recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reports on the first standardised measure of this difference, and it shows that having a proclivity for metaphors has real consequences, affecting how people respond to the world around them and even how they interact with others.

A metaphor uses a concrete concept, often sensory (e.g. ‘light’) or location-based (e.g. ‘forward’), to illuminate a nebulous one, such as emotion or time. While this colouring-in can be useful – and can endure, and transform language – it may not be to everyone’s taste, or necessary for the demands of their day-to-day life. To systematically investigate this, an international research team led by Adam Fetterman developed a measure – which asks people to choose their preference for various metaphors or equivalent literal phrases, for example: ‘She uses her head’ vs. ‘She makes rational decisions’ – and administered it to 132 student participants.

The researchers found a good deal of variability between the students in how they responded, including some who only ever selected the metaphor option, and others only the literal alternative. Scores on the measure correlated with a preference for mental imagery, and they correlated with the amount that participants used metaphoric phrases in a free-writing exercise, confirming the test predicts actual behaviour. Conversely, the test scores were not associated with personality factors, with intellectual ability, nor with the ability to visualise, suggesting the test is measuring a mental style rather than a capacity. So, then, a metaphoric thinking style is an actual thing you can measure. But does it matter?

It does. Take the way metaphors can affect our feelings (known as the ‘metaphor transfer effect’). In a classic example, people rate neutral words as more pleasant when they are printed in a white font rather than a black one – ‘light’ being associated metaphorically with ‘good’. Before now researchers didn’t agree on whether this kind of effect is truly down to reliance on metaphorical representations – a counter explanation is that these effects reflect fundamental, non-conceptual associations between different stimuli that were formed early in life – e.g. through repeated pairings of warmth and affection. However, when Fetterman and his team recruited a further 132 students, they found that those who scored higher on having a metaphoric thinking style also tended to show a greater preference for white-font over black-font words, thus providing good evidence that the metaphor transfer effect is aptly named, after all.

Another study took this out into the real world, tracking 136 people over a fortnight to see whether the amount of sweet food consumed on a given day influenced how agreeable they were in their interactions with other people. I would have imagined that if there were any effect, it might be simply due to a glucose buzz. But no. The link between sweet food consumption and people’s behaviour that the researchers found was mostly down to thinking style. That is, the effect was much stronger among the highly metaphorical participants: when they were sweet in tooth, they were also sweet in nature (thus adding a nuance to previous research on this link).

Remember, too, that metaphors are supposed to illuminate, particularly when it comes to abstract concepts that can be hard to pin down, like the subtleties of emotions. In another experiment, Fetterman’s team measured participants’ ability to correctly judge most people’s typical emotional response in different situations, such as when something unpleasant was happening that couldn’t be stopped. In this example, the correct response was ‘distressed’. Crucially, people who scored highly in metaphoric thinking style tended to perform better at this task. This suggests their colourful thinking style actually gave them greater insight into emotions.

In a final experiment, 50 participants spent five minutes each day for a week writing about their negative emotions, and they were encouraged to be either literal, ‘I felt anxious or confused’, or metaphorical: ‘I felt like a leaf in the wind’. The participants’ depression symptoms and negative emotion ratings, which were recorded at the start and end of the week, were found to drop in the metaphorical condition only. Although this experiment didn’t measure participants’ metaphoric style, it shows that being encouraged to adopt this style is more effective in alleviating negative feelings on troubling topics.

From an experimenter’s perspective, it’s interesting to note that in the font-colour study, participants who were well below average in metaphor usage didn’t show any significant preference for white words: those transfer effects don’t work on me, Jedi. In fact, if the researchers had just looked at the average scores for the participants as a whole, the metaphor effect would have been undetectable. This suggests the new measure of metaphorical thinking style can help us to investigate meaning-related effects that might be elusive. For example, it might have value in pinning down findings in the contested area of social priming, helping to identity those people likely to be influenced by such effects. Furthermore, we’ve seen that a metaphorical thinking style has emotional benefits, but could it also be useful in non-emotional domains, for instance in the extent to which fishy smells activate sceptical thinking?

One thing’s for sure – whether we prefer a crystal-clear monochrome take on the world, or to ladle on the technicolour, it’s clear that metaphor usage filters how we take in the world, for good and ill. af

 

First brain scan study to feature that dress   
In Cortex

Earlier this year a dress nearly broke the internet. A photo of the striped frock (which is actually blue and black) was posted on Tumblr and it quickly became apparent that it looked very different to different people, spawning furious arguments and lively scientific commentary.

Specifically, people disagreed vehemently over whether it was white and gold or blue and black. Now, writing in the journal Cortex, researchers in Germany have published the first study to scan people’s brains while they look at the dress, and the neural findings appear to support earlier, psychological explanations of the phenomenon.

When the dress story went viral, psychologists were quick to explain that this dress provided a striking example of how our perception of the world arises from a combination of incoming sensory information and our interpretation of that information. In the case of colour perception, when light bounces off an object and hits your retina, its mix of wavelengths is determined by the colour of the object and the nature of the light source illuminating it. Your brain has to disentangle the two. Usually it does this very well allowing for something called ‘colour constancy’ – the way that objects of the same colour are perceived the same even under different illumination conditions. However, the mental processing involved in colour perception does leave room for interpretation and ambiguity, especially when the nature of the background illumination is unclear as is the case with the photo of the dress.

For the new study, Lara Schlaffke and her colleagues scanned the brains of 28 people with normal vision while they looked at the photo of the dress. Fourteen of the participants see the dress as white and gold and 14 see it as blue and black. The key finding is that the people who see the dress as white and gold showed extra activation in a raft of brain areas, including in frontal, parietal (near the crown of the head) and temporal (near the ears) regions. Yet, no group differences emerged in a control condition when the participants simply looked at large coloured squares that matched two of the colours that feature in the dress, but without any contextual information also visible.

These results are broadly consistent with the idea that the white/gold perceivers were engaged in more interpretative mental processing when looking at the dress. To oversimplify, their perceptual experience of the dress is based less purely on the ‘bottom-up’, raw sensory information arriving at their eyes, and is distorted more by their own assumptions and expectations about the background illumination. The extra activity in their brains during the dress viewing is likely, at least in part, to be a neural correlate of all this interpretative, ‘top-down’ processing.

What the new study can’t answer is whether this extra neural processing (or which aspects of it) in the white/gold group is the cause of their perceptual experience of the dress, or the consequence. However, the researchers describe some future approaches that could help address this quasi-philosophical conundrum: for example, by using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to temporarily disrupt the extra localised neural activity seen in the people who experience the dress as white and gold, we could ask: will they still experience the illusion? cj

 

How jurors can be misled by emotional testimony and
gruesome photos  
In Psychiatry, Psychology and Law

As a juror in a criminal trial, you are meant to make a judgement of the defendant’s guilt or innocence based on the evidence and arguments presented before you. In many trials, however, alongside the facts of the case, material and statements are allowed that don’t in themselves speak to the culpability of the defendant. In a murder trial, for instance, a parent may take the stand and describe how their life has been destroyed by the loss of their child (the victim in the case). Similarly, the prosecution may present disturbing crime scene photographs of the victim, which don’t say anything about the defendant’s culpability, but do exert an emotional effect in the courtroom.

Writing in Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, Kayo Matsuo and Yuji Itoh at Keio University in Japan describe how they tested the effects of these kinds of evidence on the decision making of 127 students (89 women) who were asked to play the role of juror in a fictional case. The students listened to a man read out a transcript of a murder trial, in which a homeless man stood accused of murdering a young female student so that he would be sent to jail and no longer be homeless. Factually speaking the prosecution’s case was weak, and while the defendant had confessed to the crime, he later recanted and pleaded innocence.

Among the students who heard a version of the trial transcript that featured no emotional testimony from the victim’s father, nor any photos of the victim’s body, 46 per cent of them said they thought the homeless man was guilty. Other students heard a version that did contain testimony from the victim’s father, in which he expressed his grief, described how kind and bright his daughter was, and how much anger he felt toward the defendant. Although logically this testimony did not provide evidence of the defendant’s guilt, 71 per cent of the students who heard the father’s words said they thought the defendant was guilty, and this rose to 79 per cent if they were also shown photographs of the victim’s fatally wounded body.

The effect of the father’s emotional testimony appeared to be explained at least in part by the negative emotions it aroused in the students, such as anger and disgust. Among the students who rendered a guilty verdict those who heard the father’s emotional testimony also tended to support a harsher sentence for the defendant – 33 per cent said he should receive the death penalty compared with just 16 per cent of those who did not hear the father's testimony. It’s worth bearing in mind that the father’s emotional testimony was read out to students by the narrator in a neutral voice – the psychological effects of this kind of testimony would likely be far greater in a real-life trial situation.

The researchers said their results showed that ‘emotional information upsets jurors and disturbs their legal decisions’. They concluded that ‘in order to avoid false convictions and ensure a better trial system, psychological studies conducted in legal settings should explore the function of emotional evidence as well as the role of emotions’.  cj

 

People prefer food that comes in sexist packaging   
In Social Psychology

Putting unhealthy food in macho masculine packaging, or healthy food in feminine-themed packaging, makes it taste nicer, and people are willing to pay more for it. That’s according to
a new study in Social Psychology.

Luke Zhu and his colleagues made their finding by asking participants (58 men and 82 women) at a local fair to taste-test a blueberry muffin. Every participant tasted the exact same kind of muffin, but it was packaged in different ways for different participants. When it was labelled as a ‘Mega Muffin’ (supposedly conveying an unhealthy variety) and its packaging was masculine (depicting men playing football) both men and women tended to rate the muffin as tastier, and they were willing to pay more for it, as compared with when the Mega Muffin was in stereotypically feminine packaging, with a woman ballet dancer depicted in the background. Similarly, participants’ ratings of the muffin were more positive if it was labelled as a Health Muffin and its packaging was feminine as opposed to masculine.

If you’re thinking that there’s something ridiculously retro about the implied sexism in these findings, you’ll be heartened to know that in another experiment the researchers showed that if the gendered packaging was taken too far, the results actually switched. With the Mega Muffin labelled as ‘The Muffin For Real Men’ alongside the same football imagery used previously, participants were on average willing to pay less for it than when the packaging contained the football imagery only.

In another experiment, Zhu and his team changed tack to look at whether reminders of gender could affect people’s food preferences in line with the gender stereotypes around food. Participants completed a word-puzzle task that involved descrambling seven lists of words into coherent sentences. When the word lists each contained a word pertaining to masculinity (such as men or hunting) male and female participants subsequently expressed food preferences that were more stereotypically male (for example, they said they’d prefer fried chicken over baked chicken) and said that they had weaker intentions to eat more healthily in the future. When the word lists contained a feminine-related word, the effects worked in the other direction, prompting a preference for healthy food and plans to eat more healthily in the future.

The researchers said they had shown the ‘power of cultural stereotypes to implicitly shape food preferences’ and they believe their findings have implications for public health policy. The idea of pandering to gender stereotypes may make some people uncomfortable, but if these effects can be replicated in future research, the implication, at least in the short term, is that healthy food products are likely to appeal to more people, whether male or female, if they are packaged in a ‘feminine’ way.  cj

 

Survey that revealed iffy practices was itself iffy    
In Social Psychological and Personality Science

Four years ago we were the first to break the disconcerting news that a survey of thousands of US psychologists had found their use of ‘questionable research practices’ was commonplace: that is, their tendency to do things like failing to report all the measures they had taken, or collecting more data after looking to see if their results were significant.

The story went viral, further aggravating the storm cloud sitting over the discipline at that time (it was shortly after the Diederik Stapel fraud case). But now in an ironic development, two leading psychologists have published a damning critique of the ‘questionable research practices’ survey, raising concerns about the methods that were used and the way the findings were interpreted. ‘Claims about violations of the standards of good science deserve to be held to the high standards they endorse,’ they write, ‘not the least in light of the damage that misleading inferences can cause.’

Klaus Fiedler at the University of Heidelberg and Norbert Schwarz at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, point out that many of the survey items were hopelessly vague and ambiguous. For example, the survey asked whether respondents had ‘failed to report all of a study’s dependent measures’. Fiedler and Schwarz say it would be unrealistic for any psychologist to always report every single thing they measure. Really, they argue, the question should ask whether respondents had failed to report all of a study’s measures that were relevant for a particular finding. The pair highlight similar concerns with other items in the survey.

Another issue they highlight is that for a respondent to demonstrate 100 per cent innocence they would need to answer ‘No’ repeatedly to all 10 items on the survey. When people complete surveys, they tend to show an aversion to always providing the same answer, so really a survey should be compiled such that scores toward a given construct or characteristic are based on a mix of ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ answers. The original survey also asked if respondents ‘had ever’ conducted any of the questionable practices in question, which speaks to the proportion of the sample who’d ever committed a given research ‘sin’, but the authors and media went beyond this, to make assumptions about the prevalence of these behaviours. Fiedler and Schwarz liken this logical error to making inferences about church attendance based on the proportion of people who have ever entered a church.

Fiedler and Schwarz go on to report the findings of their own ‘questionable research practices’ survey, which they gave to 1138 members of the German Psychological Association. Their survey contained the same 10 items that were used in the original 2011 survey, but with less ambiguous wording. They also asked their respondents not only if they’d ever committed the dubious practices but also in what proportion of their published work they’d done so.

The new survey finds firstly that admission rates for ever having committed questionable practices were lower than in the 2011 survey – this could be because of the tightened wording, or because this was a sample of psychologists from a different culture. Secondly and more importantly, argue Fiedler and Schwarz, is that combining the information they collected about prevalence leads to a big fall in survey outcomes. For example, the new survey found that 47 per cent of respondents admitted to at least once claiming to have predicted an unexpected finding. Yet the average prevalence figure for this practice was just 10 per cent (i.e. respondents on average said they did this for 10 per cent of their published work).

Fiedler and Schwarz agree it is important to address issues of scientific misconduct, but they worry that the misinterpretation of a poorly executed survey risks spreading a harmful message – that questionable research practices are rife, encouraging more people to think ‘everybody else is doing it, why shouldn’t I?’. cj

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